First-generation students discuss struggles, opportunities on campus

Thursday, January 4, 2018 - 6:45pm

Taubman sophomore Wendy Zhuo moved herself into college her freshman year. She bid farewell to her parents and hopped on a train from Boston to Ann Arbor. When she arrived, four suitcases in tow, she had no idea where she was. Eventually she called a taxi, which then dropped her and her belongings at her dorm.

Zhuo is part of the 8 percent of first-generation undergraduate students at the University, according to the 2016 Campus Climate Survey on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and her story is just one of many that first-generation students have to tell. Navigating the complex academic and social environment of college is difficult enough, but it is compounded by a lack of parental guidance and, in the case of many first-generation college students, a low-income status. According to a 2017 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 27 percent of first-generation students come from homes making $20,000 a year or less, whereas only six percent of continuing-generation students do.

The setbacks these students face can create feelings of isolation and dissatisfaction with the campus climate, as shown in the results of the University’s 2016 Campus Climate Survey. To combat these struggles, the University has various resources and programs to help first-generation students throughout their college careers.

Dwight Lang, faculty adviser of the University group First-Generation College Students at Michigan, said the first-generation students he has talked to over the years note their freshman year was the hardest. As a first-generation student himself, he aids in students' adjustment to college life, and connect them to the University and each other.

“So many first-gens I’ve talked to who’ve had problems, it’s always been the first year,” Lang said. “Many of them have said they just wanted to flee the place because it was just so foreign to them. But they have made a decision to come to college, so I tell them to try to find a reference group where people can understand them. Maybe find a staff person or a faculty member, a peer, someone they can talk to about your experiences.”

Mia McCrumb, a first-generation business freshman, said her biggest challenge arriving at the University was having no expectations as to what college would be like. This was a stark contrast, she noted, to her continuing-generation friends at the University. She said they knew what to expect because it was always assumed they would go to college.

“I never knew that I was going to come to Michigan and I feel so extremely blessed to be here,” McCrumb said. “I’ve just definitely worked so hard to be where I’m at. And I think other people have always grown up knowing they’re going to come here. It’s a very big deal; it wasn’t planned for me and it wasn’t expected for me either.”

For LSA senior Hunter Zhao, president of First-Generation College Students at Michigan, he felt his biggest issues were with taking advantage of opportunities offered at the University and with not relating to continuing-generation students from more privileged backgrounds.

“It was a two-pronged thing,” Zhao said. “On one side there was that social aspect of trying to connect with kids who really didn’t understand the experiences that I was coming from. The second part was the more technical aspect of not seeing value outside of just getting my degree.”

According to Lang, Zhao’s bewilderment when trying to relate with wealthier students is not uncommon among first-generation students. Lang explained that first-generation students’ decision to attend college is simultaneously a decision to ascend to a higher socioeconomic status. This isn’t apparent to these students when they enter college; Lang said gradually their upward socioeconomic mobility starts to manifest itself, which can cause tension between them and their families.

“I encourage the first-gens that are in our group to get to know middle- and upper-class peers because they’re going to have to adjust to this new social class they want to be a part of,” Lang said. “They all want to be upwardly mobile. I don’t think they all realized that in the beginning. So then they start thinking about family. If they’re going to get flak from their parents: ‘oh you think you’re better than us.’ That’s a big issue for first-gens.”

LSA senior Ariana Cribbs didn’t attribute her challenges at the University to being a first-generation student until her junior year when she participated in the Sociology Opportunities for Undergraduate Leadership. With the program, she did research on the first-generation student experience and during her interviews with other first-generation students, she saw their experiences mirrored hers.

“I interviewed other first-gens and figured out the challenges that I face are not just exclusive to me, they’re exclusive to first-generation students,” Cribbs said. “This is something I was experiencing and I didn’t realize it was because of my standing of being a first-gen.”

After she moved in her freshman year, Zhuo received emails about a first-generation student dinner and from that found the First Generation College Students at Michigan student group. This year, she became the group’s treasurer. She said because of finding this community, this year has been easier for her.

“As a sophomore, since I’ve done it once before, and I know how the system works now, it’s a lot easier,” Zhuo said. “Also, knowing people on campus helps a lot. Having a community and building connections to people around me helps navigating the whole system.”

Zhao affirmed that, as a senior, adjustment is much easier for him because he has become more aware of the different opportunities available to him. Cribbs said she still has challenges, but the importance of her goal of being the first in her family to earn a degree keeps her persevering.

“It’s still kind of a struggle to figure out the new things,” Cribbs said. “I didn’t even know going toward senior year about applying for graduation, and I had to go meet up with my advisers. That was kind of difficult but I’m just super grateful that I’m going to actually be a college graduate. Once I get my degree and I’m making more money, I can go back and support my family and my community.”

The University and the First Generation College Students at Michigan student group are working to provide better resources for first-generation students. One newly established resource is the First-Generation Student Gateway, a space for first-generation students to seek guidance or meet other students from similar backgrounds.

Adan Hussain, a first-generation project manager in the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, detailed four major events he oversees to assist in assisting first-generation students in acclimating to the University: A student and parent open house at the start of the year, two large community dinners and a first-generation graduation ceremony.
 
“The major goal is community building, so that first-gen students can meet other first-gens who might be like them, or who might not be like them,” Hussain said. “Meeting both is just really powerful. The other is getting connected to resources and things that folks may not have known about before.”

According to Lang, first-generation student groups are becoming more numerous in the graduate schools as well. Next fall, First-Generation College Students at Michigan is launching a mentorship program which pairs first-generation upperclassmen with first-generation underclassmen. The upperclassmen can relay their knowledge and show underclassmen what a first-generation senior experience looks like.

But there’s still more to be done, McCrumb said she wants First Generation College Students at Michigan to continue to expand on campus and utilize more University-sponsored resources to help more struggling first-generation students.

“I hope that the group on campus becomes more prominent,” McCrumb said. “I hope the University begins to work more with them. That’s a group I had to seek out on my own. I think giving students that information is really important.”

In discussing his goals as the president of First Generation College Students at Michigan, Zhao described wanting to raise awareness and debunk narrow-minded views of first-generation students on campus.

“Something our executive board is working on this year is demystifying who is a first-generation college student,” he said. “I think for a long time the narrative of a first-gen student has been a rural white student. And we’re really hoping to expand that image. Within each racial minority, they’re disproportionately first-generation students. We want to encourage students to see first-generation college students as intersectional as well.”

After senior year, the journey for first-generation college students is not yet over. Cribbs applied to graduate schools last semester and said she is now anticipating the obstacles of being a first-generation graduate student.

“Knowing what I know now about being a first-gen, I’m looking forward to when I go to grad school and connecting with first-gen grad students,” Cribbs said.

First-generation seniors have four years to adjust and to openly discuss their first-generation identity. But Lang thinks it’s best to tell people from the start.

“My advice is to be open and honest about who you are and where you’ve come from your first year here,” Lang said. “Be proud of who you are. You’re a risk-taker, you’re a boundary crosser. That’s a real strength that you have. You got a lot of guts coming here to college. You might as well be open about it from the get-go.”